Ready or not: what to do about expansion

Sarah Willingham, entrepreneur, judge of BBC’s Dragons’ Den and advisor to The Guardian’s Small Business Mentoring programme, shares her top tips for businesses to achieve growth.

Achieving success is front of mind for entrepreneurs when embarking on a new business venture. The initial stages can often be expensive and time-consuming, and business owners naturally want to see that the investment they are making will have a quick return.

Having first-hand experience of the challenges small businesses face, I was really pleased to be invited to be part of The Guardian’s Small Business Mentoring programme, supported by Barclaycard. I am working with Claudi & Fin, a new business which sells low-sugar frozen lollies for children, and speaking to co-founders Meriel Kehoe and Lucy Woodhouse has reminded me that planning your ‘next step’ requires a lot of consideration.

Often, it is the idea of expansion that business owners find particularly challenging to navigate. To help with this process, I’ve developed a series of tips to help entrepreneurs recognise when the time is right to move into the next phase of their journey and overcome the barriers to growth to reach their full potential.

Putting your business in the best place for growth

Before you do anything else, define your business model. During set-up, it is important to be really clear about not only what you’re selling, but who you’re selling to and why people would buy your product over another. Crucially, find your niche; what makes you original, what is the gap in the market and how does your business fill it and meet customer demand?

Once you’ve got the right foundation, the business is starting to grow and you’re confident about where you want to go, you can start putting a plan in place to achieve your goals.  

Getting investors and customers interested in your business

Expansion means different things to different businesses. For some it would be adding another shop to a chain, for others it might be starting to operate online. Whatever the goal, it often doesn’t come cheap, and therefore getting help from investors could be key to your success. To get new investors on board, you need to articulate three things: who the business is aimed at, why consumers would buy from it, and why you, as the business owner, are the person to make it work.

To fulfil these criteria, it is vital to demonstrate the characteristics of your customer base, the depth of your relationships with them, and how your offer meets their needs. It’s also important to show investors how your customer insights have enabled you to make your products as suitable and accessible as possible. By demonstrating your ability to attract customers and fulfil their needs, investors will be able to see the long-term viability of your business – which ultimately encourages them to invest.  

Securing longer-term success through innovation

Success cannot be taken for granted. The pressure really kicks in when it comes to maintaining momentum, and ensuring that any business growth leads to a corresponding rise in sales and revenue.

Central to keeping people interested is being relevant; and central to being relevant is staying fresh and inventive. This can come in many forms, for example, new product development, the way you communicate with customers or redefining your business offering. Identifying and using the right technology for your business can go a long way towards helping you innovate, be nimble, and meet the changing expectations of your target audience.

One part of the customer journey currently undergoing huge transformation, and that all businesses need to get right, is payments. Adapting your payment methods in line with new trends can increase the likelihood of people buying your products or services – now and in the future. Indeed, Barclaycard research* shows that SMEs are missing out on £8.8bn each year by not accepting credit and debit card payments, so a simple fix can really boost your bottom line.

Personally, I always choose to go to a retailer with the best payment options to suit my needs.  For example, when I’m in a rush, I opt for a shop where I can pay with card – preferably contactless – or via an app or mobile. Likewise, if I don’t have time to go into a store, I want to use a mobile-friendly website to help me shop on the go.

Ultimately, in every aspect of success – from setting up, to growth, to ongoing innovation – the most important advice I can give is to listen to your customer. Find out what works best for them, and how you can meet their needs. There is no substitute for loyal, engaged customers who feel valued. Then prove your commitment by adapting your business. Only by getting the basics right first, and always keeping customers front and centre, can businesses achieve lasting growth and take that next step.

Sarah Willingham is an entrepreneur, judge of BBC’s Dragons’ Den and advisor to The Guardian’s Small Business Mentoring programme, run in partnership with Barclaycard.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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